In October, the first novel in a new fantasy series by singer, songwriter and activist WILLOW and co-writer Jess Hendel will be released. Black Shield Maiden is the story of home in the flourishing Ghanaian Empire and thrust into the world of the Vikings, where she discovers a strange new world of savage shield maidens, tyrannical rulers, and mysterious gods – but also a kindred spirit in Freydis, a Viking princess, who also wants the same thing: to forge her own fate.
The novel is the first in an epic medieval fantasy series that will make visible the histories and mythologies of medieval African people and women of the Viking age, which have long been erased by dominant Western narratives. Here, you can read an extract:
With the frenzied shouts of bargainers and the scratch of cart-wheels on the ground as a greeting, we enter the brick walls of Koumbi Saleh. Kamo and Goleh race ahead, kicking up dust in their wake.
Koumbi Saleh never ceases to inspire me with awe. I’ve been to many cities around Wagadu with Papa, and even a few outside the empire’s borders—but I’ve never seen one so splendid as Koumbi Saleh. Little wonder, given that the Ghāna himself lives here.
Papa once told me that our Ghāna is the richest king of all the kings in the world. Looking around, it’s easy to believe. There’s gold everywhere: carved into the wooden doors of the massive stone palace, forged into sword-mounts for the Ghāna’s many sons, plaited in the hair of his daughters, embroidered in the priests’ robes. Not to mention the protection that gold can buy: Royal soldiers with gleaming swords and spears stand guard at every turn.
Even the are treated like royalty, with reins of silk and soft furs for them to sleep on.
It sets my blood on fire to know that horses live in such luxury when there are people in Wagadu who are struggling just to survive. I’ve gone to bed without food myself more nights than I can count—and we’re some of the luckier ones. At least my uncle lets us stay in the village. Those without tribes don’t last very long; they either starve or get picked up by slavers.
A small domed building stands out from the houses of brick and acacia that line the edges of the market: the “mosque” for the Muslim traders.
I remember the first time I saw it—the first time I ever came to Koumbi Saleh. It was before we had settled in the village for good. I was young enough that I had to lift my hand above my head to hold Papa’s.
“What is that building for?” I asked him, pointing to the gray dome.
“It’s for the Muslims,” he replied. “They worship their god inside.”
“Every mosque is for the same god, their Supreme Creator. The Muslims call him Allah, and they do not worship any other. They say Allah is the only true god, and that he is all-powerful.”
I couldn’t believe it. Did the Muslims not feel Sogbo’s might in the rumbling of thunder, in the cracking open of the sky before the heaviest rains? Did they not sense Agé’s essence coursing through the wilderness and all the animals that live within it?
I stared at the strange building and contemplated the god being worshipped inside. “He must be a very busy god,” I said to Papa. He laughed and knuckled my head.
After a while, a luckless potter decides to leave early and we slide into her plot. Kamo and Goleh are given the task of finding Fàré some water as I arrange our goods on the selling cloth. Mama sets another cloth over our heads to shield us from the violence of Lisa, now at his highest peak. I lay out Mama’s creations: her beautiful beaded necklaces and a handful of stone pendants of different shapes and pigments, intricately carved in the likenesses of the gods. Beside them my daggers look rugged and uninviting.
“If anyone asks—” Mama begins, turning to me.
“I know,” I say fiercely, rolling my eyes. “Papa made these weapons. Not me.”
After we finish setting everything up, we wait for someone to perceive our creations as worthy of being coveted. Soon, three men with skin the color of sand amble toward us.
I recognize the headwraps, the hooded dashikis with the slit down the middle of the chest, and the pointed shoes poking out from under their trousers.
The Amazigh are dangerous on their best day. They have little regard for anyone who doesn’t worship the Muslim god—and even their own tribes are always at war with one another. Back when we traveled the desert with Papa, we took extra care to avoid crossing their path. The desert is lawless, and those who don’t travel under the protection of the Ghāna can fall prey to Amazigh thieves and slavers, often disguised as harmless merchants. Everyone has heard the stories: travelers beaten to within an inch of their lives by the Amazigh, waking only to find their wagons pilfered and their bodies chained to a caravan. After what happened to Jenne, more and more Soninke have started building their own mosques and worshipping the one god, if only to maintain with the Amazigh. The Ghāna mostly looks the other way, because Wagadu relies on the Amazigh to bring salt from across the desert. Much as I want to, I can’t fault his reasoning: Gold makes a man rich, but salt keeps him alive.
The man on the right catches my eye. He looks about my age, small and slenderly built compared with his older and sturdier companions. His beard, unlike theirs, is shorn close. As he draws nearer, I notice with a shock that his eyes are as golden as any of the gold I’ve seen here today. They burn, too, like molten gold. They’re framed by thick, dark eyebrows and a gracefully sloping nose. Everything about him is graceful, from the tufts of hair curling out from under his headwrap to the flowing movements of his limbs. Next to him, the other men look like lumbering giants.
I feel a blush rising to my cheeks as he holds my gaze. I look to Mama, severing the connection. Her face is calm, but as they approach, she takes a shaky breath.
“I greet you, gentlemen,” she says, smiling politely.
They say nothing, scanning our with furrowed brows. The burly man in the center runs a callused hand down my throwing knife. Unlike his fine-featured companion, his face is almost brutish, with eyes that look comically small above a large, lumpy nose that curves to the left, like it’s been broken too many times to set straight. I fight the urge to slap his hand away.
“This one isn’t as bad as the others. Which of your boys made it?” He speaks our language with a thick, grating accent, holding the dagger up to examine it in the sun.
I clench my jaw but say nothing. He’s only insulting us to get a better price.
Mama shoots me a wary glance. Kamo and Goleh are roughhousing in the dirt a few paces away, paying no mind to the men at our table.
“They are too young for such fine handicraft,” she replies smoothly. “My husband made it.”
The man smirks at Mama, then at me. “No wonder he sends you to the market alone. He hopes your pretty faces will make up for his lack of skill.”
A different kind of heat rushes to my face.
He’s haggling. He’s just haggling.
But I see my uncle in his scornful eyes. I see Masireh in the cruel twist of his lips. And something inside me refuses to be hidden any longer.
“What if I told you it was me?” I say before I can stop myself, looking straight into the man’s beady eyes.
He shares a look with his hulking companion, and the two of them burst into laughter. The golden-eyed man stays silent, but I can feel his gaze locked on my reddening face. As their laughter grows louder, a molten ball of anger forms in my stomach and rolls up my chest. I start to tremble.
“Don’t be silly, little girl,” the man replies, his tone mocking.
I hear a flinty ringing between my ears, like a hammer striking a blade. The ball of fire in my chest breaks apart and flows down my limbs, flooding them with energy.
I spot a goshawk soaring in the air behind the burly man’s head. Quick as a flash, I snatch the dagger out of his hand and hurl it into the sky. The blade skims his hair as it whizzes past.
Wide-eyed, all three men turn to watch the bird drop out of the sky.
I have only a moment to relish their shock before a hand wraps around my neck. The burly man lifts me off the ground like a doll.
“How dare you!” he snarls. Mama lunges for me, but his companion swats her to her knees and holds her there. I cry out to her, but only a choked gurgle comes out.
I struggle to get air back into my lungs as I watch the other large man ransack our goods. The golden-eyed man shifts on his feet and murmurs some urgent words in their harsh tongue, but they both ignore him.
My eyeballs feel like they’re bulging out of my head as I scan the square for help. Everyone—from the craftsmen, to the merchants, to the beggars on the street—averts their eyes. Even the Ghāna’s soldiers do not intervene. The Amazigh are as necessary as they are feared, and I’m no one worth protecting.
Blue spots creep into the edges of my vision.
Just when I think I’ll never breathe again, the man lets go of my neck. I drop to the ground, gasping and sputtering.
“Let this be a lesson to you,” he says.
My vision returns to normal as I suck the dusty air into my lungs. Kamo and Goleh cling to Mama, crying softly. She wraps her arms around them, keeping her eyes down as the men finish stuffing their satchels. When they finally leave, all three of my daggers and most of Mama’s necklaces and pendants are gone.
I glare after the men with half a mind to go after them, to show them what else my father taught me. But there are three of them, against me alone . . .
As if reading my thoughts, the golden-eyed man looks back and catches my furious gaze. He holds it for a long moment, and for some reason the painted wolf from this morning flashes in my mind.
Then a group of priests walks between us, their flowing white robes obscuring the trio of thieves.
When the crowd clears, they’re gone.
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